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Monday 1 September 2014

Monaghan man in fatal Cavan crash case was not 'neurologically capable of driving a car', court hears

Conor Gallagher

Published 14/07/2014 | 17:54

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Three Russian businesmen have been sparring in court.

A driver who was involved in a crash which took the life of a teenage girl was allowed on the road despite having suffered a major brain injury in another crash earlier that year, a court has heard.

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Robert Harrison (23) was in a coma for two months after a crash in January 2009 and was left with a significant mental impairment.

He was back on the road by November of that year when he was involved in the crash in Cavan which killed 19 year old Nicola Roberts, who had been a passenger in his car.

Today at Cavan Circuit Criminal Court, sitting in Dublin,  Judge Pauline Codd said that it was “extraordinary” that Mr Harrison was on the road with such an injury and that it was a cause of concern to the court that he was allowed behind the wheel.

An expert doctor who recently examined Mr Harrison said that he felt he was not “neurologically capable of driving a car.” Another examining doctor wrote in a report that he was amazed that the man was allowed back on the road after the January crash.

Mr Harrison, of Shantonagh in Monaghan was charged with dangerous driving causing the death of Ms Roberts in a crash at Drung in Cootehill, County Cavan on November 11, 2009.

The case was in court today for a “fitness to plead” hearing to decide if Mr Harrison is capable of standing trial. His defence team submitted that his brain injury is so severe that he cannot properly follow the evidence or instruct counsel.

The Director of Public Prosecutions acknowledged he had certain problems with his memory but said that these could be accommodated during a trial.

Judge Codd sided with the defence and ruled that Mr Harrison’s impairment meant he could not follow the evidence properly and that the court would be unable to remedy this by adapting the trial procedure.

She ruled that Mr Harrison is not fit to stand trial and offered her sympathies to Mr Roberts’ family.

During their submissions, the defence called neurological expert, Dr Alan Byrne, who interviewed Mr Harrison and found that he acted childishly and couldn’t remember key details about the crash, including the name of the victim. The doctor described him as “a babe in the woods.”

Dr Byrne told defence counsel Anthony Sammon SC that Mr Harrison was not capable of standing trial or of driving a car. He said it was “optimistic and probably hazardous” that he was back driving in the months after waking from his coma.

Prosecuting counsel Alex Owens SC put it to the witness that another expert, Dr Colin Wilson, interviewed Mr Harrison and found him to have performed normally in most tests.

Dr Byrne responded that Dr Wilson also found the accused to be impaired in the areas of memory and new learning.

He also pointed out that “the fundamental thing Dr Wilson was amazed at was that he was driving at all.”

Dr Stephen Monks, a forensic psychologist, gave evidence for the prosecution. He said that tests performed in March 2010 showed Mr Harrison’s executive brain function was average. He said his global intelligence is in the normal range but that he has memory problems.

Dr Monks said he is capable of standing trial if special provisions were put in place such as giving the accused regular recaps of the evidence.

Dr Byrne said Mr Harrison has several physical impairments which stem from his brain injury. These include an irregular gait and a minor speech impediment.

He said he had suffered a “very serious disruption” of his brain activity as a result of being in a coma for so long. The doctor said that it is likely that the frontal lobe, which controls decision making, was damaged in the first crash.

Dr Byrne said Mr Harrison had a limited ability to process information and had a very scant understanding of what happened in the second crash.

Dr Monks gave evidence for the prosecution that he believed Mr Harrison would be able to able to instruct counsel and follow evidence in a trial.

He said the accused was able to give a good account of the crash when he was interviewed and that he understood the prosecution case against him.

Dr Monk said that Mr Harrison told him he had given a lift to two girls and was pulling out to overtake some cars when the crash happened. He said he thought the prosecution might accuse him of trying to overtake too many cars or of going too fast.

Dr Monk added that he also spoke to Mr Harrison’s parents who said he was able to look after himself and had friends and a partner to support him.

Granting the defence request to stop the trial, Judge Codd said it was not open to the court to put in special provisions for Mr Harrison’s memory problems because it was impossible to know in advance what would be required.

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